On your mark, get set, read

On your mark, get set, read

Everybody's doing it


So many books, so little time – and local synagogues, JCCs, and Chabad houses are doing their best to help members enjoy that time.

Susan Kolodny – leader of Gesher Shalom”“The Jewish Community Center of Fort Lee’s Sisterhood/Ya Ya Sisterhood Book Club – waxes euphoric about the group of 20 to 30 women who meet once a month on Wednesday evenings.

This year, they read 11 books: “Sarah’s Key” (Tatiana de Rosnay), “The Outside World” (Tova Mirvis), “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society” (Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows), “A Pigeon and a Boy” (Meir Shalev), “My Father’s Paradise” (Ariel Sabar), “All Other Nights” (Dara Horn), “Have a Little Faith” (Mitch Albom), “The Book Thief” (Markus Zusak), “People of the Book” (Geraldine Brooks), “The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit” (Lucette Lagnado), and “The Help” (Kathryn Stockett).

Books slated so far for the coming year include “The Invisible Wall” (Harry Bernstein), “The Invisible Bridge” (Julie Orringer), “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” (John Boyne), “Day after Night” (Anita Diamant), “The Diplomat’s Wife” (Pam Jenoff), and “Those Who Save Us” (Jenna Blum).

Kolodny takes her role very seriously, researching each book and sending handouts to participants before each session. In addition, she recently sent out a survey asking attendees which books they liked best.

“I’m big into feedback,” she said, adding that she has already tabulated the results from the questionnaire and circulated the results to members. She said that in creating the next year’s book list, “I listen to what (the members) say and then formulate the list,” asking members if they would like to lead any of the sessions.

While Kolodny has generally led each discussion, she said this year she will be seeking greater participation from members. The August session, for example, will be led by Carol Garvin and Madeleine Vilmos, focusing on “The Invisible Wall.”

Before each session, Kolodny approaches the Fort Lee Public Library to ensure that it will have copies of the book at the front desk.

The group leader said she was “just a member of the shul” when she was asked to head the book club this past year.

“I try to mix things up,” she said, noting that while she generally begins her book discussions in the same way – citing the book’s title and author, reviewing the author’s biographical information, and providing a synopsis – she always tries to add “one unique thing.”

For example, in the discussion on “People of the Book,” which deals with people throughout the ages who handled and left their marks on the Sarajevo Haggadah, she created a collage of blood (her own, drawn by her husband, a physician), wine, table salt, sea salt, and various kinds of hair. Similar substances are named in the book.

“I asked the members to try to figure out which was which,” she said, noting that “they could identify the human hair but messed up on the cat hair.”

For another session, she arranged that author Dara Horn participate through a teleconference, which members clearly enjoyed, judging from later feedback.

The Glen Rock Jewish Center welcomed Eva Etzioni-Halevy, author of “The Garden of Ruth,” “The Triumph of Deborah,” and “The Song of Hannah.”

To prepare for her own presentations, she does Internet research, “pulling up all the interviews I can find” with the authors. Preparing for Mitch Albom’s “Have a Little Faith,” she even traveled to The Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City, where he was speaking.

For “My Father’s Paradise,” which deals with Kurdistan, “I brought pita bread and hummus for the guests to eat,” she said. And for “Man in the Whie Sharkskin Suit,” she compiled a genealogy and a family album of the author’s extended family.

Wherever possible, she also tries to schedule appropriate readings “to match up to a Jewish holiday,” for example, assigning Horn’s “All Other Nights” around Passover time.

Kolodny shared with The Jewish Standard the result of her membership poll.

Asked to list their three favorite books (there was a tie for number one), members chose “The Book Thief,” “Sarah’s Key,” “The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit,” and “The Help.”


It’s not always easy, says Michelle Strassberg, coordinator of the Glen Rock Jewish Center’s book club, which she has led for three years.

“It probably existed before I started,” said Strassberg of the group, which tries to meet every other month.

“It’s challenging, because we’re all volunteers,” she said. “I wish I had more time to give,” she added, pointing out that the synagogue’s rabbi, Neil Tow, takes an active role in the group and often leads the book discussions.

“I feel strongly about keeping people reading and keeping the library a central part of what’s going on,” she said, noting that her goal is to integrate reading, and the shul library, into other things the synagogue does.

Among the difficulties is finding a good time to meet – one that works for all members.

“One year, we tried having our discussions after kiddush on Saturdays,” she said. “This worked well for some, those who attend services, and not so well for others. We usually meet on Tuesday or Thursday evenings, but we try to be flexible to allow more members to attend.”

Strassberg said her book group has a core group of about six regulars, with new people coming each time, depending on the book selected. The average attendance, she said, is between 10 and 12, mostly women.

Members of the Chabad Center of Passaic County’s book group paid a visit to the rebbe’s gravesite after reading “The Rebbe’s Army.”

“Though we usually have a few men,” she said, noting that attendees’ ages range from the mid-30s to the 70s.

Strassberg and Tow generally put together a list of suggested titles – books with Jewish themes – to which they add members’ suggestions and books Strassberg learns about through reviews.

In addition, she said, “I try to get an author to visit each year.”

This past season, the group welcomed Valerie Farber, the Israeli author of “City of Refuge,” who was seeking synagogue venues through which to promote her book.

“More popular authors are generally too expensive,” said Strassberg. “The rabbi got an e-mail from her publicist. She was pretty good. About 25 people came.”

You can’t always predict a group’s response, said Strassberg. “You plan things, but you just never know,” she added, noting that in conjunction with the shul library’s renovation two years ago, Eva Etzioni-Halevy – author of “The Garden of Ruth,” “The Triumph of Deborah,” and “The Song of Hannah” – came to speak at the synagogue.

“She was quite racy,” said Strassberg.

This year, Glen Rock book club members also read “The Jew in the Lotus” (Rodger Kamenetz) and “Sarah’s Key” – which, said Strassberg, generated a lot of discussion.

“There were all age groups at the meeting and we didn’t know about the roundup at the Vélodrome,” she said. “We were really shocked.”

The Vélodrome d’Hiver was an indoor cycle track in Paris where thousands of Jews were held during World War II before being moved to a concentration camp in the Parisian suburbs and then to the extermination camp at Auschwitz. The incident became known as the “Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup.”

Strassberg is now compiling her book list for the fall season. Possible titles include “People of the Book,” “Day after Night,” and either “As a Driven Leaf” or “The Prophet’s Wife” (both by Milton Steinberg).

“Some of our members were on a trip in San Francisco and found a book about the Sarajevo Haggadah,” she said. That Haggadah is the subject of “People of the Book.”

“It’s really nice and they purchased it for the library,” she said, adding that she will bring the book to the meeting.

“It’s a more popular title and I’m hoping it will bring in more people,” she said. She is also trying to get a children’s author for the coming season.

Strassberg said the group tries to have the rabbi there to moderate discussions “because he has so much knowledge. He’s young and enthusiastic.” While she has also led some discussions, she would be happy to have other members volunteer as well, she said.

The synagogue also offers book discussions in other venues, said Strassberg.

“Our Widows and Widowers group had Sandy Rubenstein, the author of ‘Mark it with a Stone.’ Joseph Horn, the subject of the book, and his wife, Dinah, were members of GRJC.”

In addition, she said, “our book group did an author visit in conjunction with Temple Israel of Ridgewood. Sue Vromen, author of ‘Hidden Children of the Holocaust: Belgian Nuns and their Daring Rescue of Young Jews from the Nazis,’ spoke and sold signed copies of her book. It was very well-attended by members of both synagogues, and the question-and-answer session could have gone on for hours, despite the fact that Ms. Vromen was well into her 80s.”


Chani Gurkov, co-director of the Chabad Center of Passaic County in Wayne and coordinator of its book club, describes it as a reading group for women focusing on books by Jewish authors writing about Jewish themes and Jewish life in different periods and places. The women meet “roughly every six to eight weeks” at a member’s home.

This year, said Gurkov, the group read “The Septembers of Shiraz” (Dalia Sofer), “Sarah’s Key,” “Have a Little Faith,” “The Color of Water” (James McBride), and “The Rebbe’s Army” (Sue Fishkoff).

“(‘The Rebbe’s Army’) is a very important book,” she said, noting that it was suggested by her husband, Rabbi Michael Gurkov, who felt the women should read it.

Because of that book, she added, members of the group were inspired to visit the rebbe’s gravesite.

“It was so informative,” said Gurkov. “Afterward the women had answers, but even more questions. Some said, ‘Now we know why we do (something) this way.'”

From left, Fran Westerman and Phyllis Mirchin, co-chairs of the Fair Lawn Jewish Center/Cong. B’nai Israel “Book of the Lunch” program.

The next session, scheduled for July 28, will deal with “The Jewish Soul on Fire” (Esther Jungreis).

“The person in whose house we’re meeting sets the tone,” said Gurkov. Participants, averaging about 10 women per meeting, come primarily from Wayne but also from other areas in Greater Passaic County. The group is open to all the women in the area. “We’ve been meeting more than a year and have read about 13 books,” she said, explaining that the group had been initiated by an Israeli woman who offered to host the first session.

“I told her, ‘You pick the book, I’ll send out an e-mail.’ We had about a dozen takers, and the first meeting was great,” she said.

Gurkov said she started with a list of the 100 best Jewish books of the year and that her husband, an avid reader, also contributed suggestions. In addition, participants brought their own lists and proposals. At the end of each session, the group selects its next book.

“It’s been a very positive experience,” said Gurkov. “No one has dropped out and everyone seems to look forward to it.” Participants were “not necessarily friends” when the group began, “but now we are.”


Cheryl Wylen, cultural arts director of the YM-YWHA in Wayne, said the book group at the Y’s Goldman Judaica Library has been meeting for over 15 years – “and several of the attendees have been with the group since the beginning.”

“Some of our most lively discussions have been on books that the group didn’t like,” she added. “People tend to come whether they’ve read the book or not. The discussions often bring up thoughts or memories from the past and individuals like to add their personal experiences to the discussion.”

According to Y librarian Wendy Marcus, the book discussion group varies in size, ranging from 10 to 20 participants. While most attendees are women, “we have a few men who come as well.”

In general, she said, the group meets once a month, from September to June, frequently on the fourth Thursday of the month.

“Our book choices have a Judaic theme or are written by a Jewish author,” she said.

Among this year’s books were “The Dream” (Harry Bernstein), “The Romance Reader” (Pearl Abraham), “The Rabbi” (Noah Gordon), “Have a Little Faith,” “Sarah’s Key,” and “Disobedience” (Naomi Alderman).

Sometimes the librarian herself facilitates the discussion, but it may also be led by a library committee member or one of the group members.

“Several authors presented their books during our Lunch and Learn program, which meets every other Monday at noon from September through June,” said Marcus. “Michelle Cameron told us about her book ‘The Fruit of Her Hands,’ the story of Shira of Ashkenaz, and Rich Leitman spoke on his book ‘Dear Roz,’ about his father’s letters home during World War II. Sondra Gash and Gail Fishman Gerwin read us their poetry.”

Marcus added that sometimes library committee volunteers present a program called “The Next Level,” discussing in depth the writings of a particular author, or a particular topic. This year’s author was Cynthia Ozick.

While next year’s agenda has not yet been set, she said, the group will probably start off the year with “Golden Willow” (Harry Bernstein).


Sharry Friedberg, River Vale resident and book discussion leader at the YJCC of Bergen County in Washington Township, said the idea of a book club spun off three years ago from a sale of gently used books.

“I put out a piece of paper (at the sale) to see if anyone wanted to join a book club,” said Friedberg. “Ten people gave me their e-mails.”

The group – which this year read “Mudbound” (Hillary Jordan), “The Commoner” (John Burnham Schwartz), “The Space Between Us” (Thrity Umrigar), and “The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane” (Katherine Howe) – meets once every two months, drawing different people each time. Most attendees are women between the ages of 40 and 65.

Dates have already been set for the coming year, with books including “Little Bee” (Chris Cleave), “The Wives of Henry Oades” (Johanna Moran), and “The Fruit of Her Hands.”

“You get to put part of yourself in a book discussion,” said Friedberg. “You become friends, getting to know each other through your thought processes. It’s nice that we’re all different ages,” she added, explaining that it brings a wider perspective to discussions.

While Friedberg has been the moderator so far, she is hoping others will volunteer, since “it will give them more ownership of the group” and might also stimulate them to bring friends along.


Fran Westerman and Phyllis Mirchin have been leading the Fair Lawn Jewish Center (now FLJC/Cong. B’nai Israel) “Book of the Lunch” club for some 15 years, regularly drawing crowds of 60 to 90 people to its bimonthly meetings.

Sometimes, said Westerman, the organizers are “fortunate to get an author,” but they have also been lucky in drawing popular reviewers such as former Jewish Community News editor Edith Sobel, who always does the first review of the year.

The secret to their success?

“We’re on the phone every month making calls,” said Westerman. “Basically, our concern is to get the speaker, then let them choose the book.”

“Edie always tells us what she wants to do, and Rabbi (Ronald) Roth knew what he wanted to do as well,” she said. “Rabbi (Neil) Tow will do one in the fall and choose his own book.”

All books “have to be Jewish in some way,” she said.

Westerman said that while the sessions attract more women than men, “we have a nice group of men who come mostly with their wives. It’s definitely a senior citizen crowd,” she added. “We usually don’t get anybody younger than their 60s.”

This year’s books included “Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter” (Peter Manseau), “My Father’s Paradise,” “Marie Syrkin: Values Beyond the Self” (Carole S. Kessner, who attended the session), “Conquering Fear” (Rabbi Harold Kushner), “All Other Nights,” and “Indignation” (Philip Roth).

“Edith always chooses books that are more thought-provoking and not always the happiest,” she said, pointing out that perhaps only a third of attendees actually read the book being discussed. “But a lot of people come and then read the book afterwards,” she said.

“Rabbi (Simon) Glustrom did one last fall and was really very good, and we just did Philip Roth’s ‘Indignation,’ led by a Roth scholar.”

The group leader said author Dara Horn spoke at a book lunch at the shul to promote her first book.

“She was a kid, who spoke like a bat mitzvah girl – so fast that no one could understand her.” But when the group invited her back to talk about her second book, “she said, ‘Call my agent,'” laughed Westerman.


Temple Emanu-El in Closter started its book group in September, said Sisterhood president Karen Farber. While some 25 women attended the first session, “not everyone comes to every meeting.”

Books are chosen on the recommendation of club co-chairs Jill Besnoy and Lisa Fischberg, Farber said, adding that the two also moderate each session.

“It’s a great way to learn from each other and connect with one another,” said Farber. “It’s enjoyable if you like to read and get together with others to discuss what you’re reading.”

Besnoy said the group “tries to mix it up a little,” alternating books with Jewish and non-Jewish themes.

“We should read about other communities,” she said, citing books like “The 19th Wife” (David Ebershoff), which deals with Mormons. “It allows us to have an interesting discussion from a Jewish standpoint.”

They also read “The Help” as well as “Those Who Save Us.”

“We get people from all different age groups – from 31 into their 70s – and all types of people,” said Besnoy, who belongs to three other reading groups.

The co-chair said the diversity of the attendees, the fact that members choose the books they read, and the mix of books “make it unique. It’s my favorite book club.”

In September, the group will read “The Zookeeper’s Wife” (Diane Ackerman).


Mimi Levin, book discussion chair at the Jewish Community Center of Paramus, said the group is now entering its fourth season. Generally, she said, its draws between 20 and 25 people, both men and women.

“It’s targeted for all age groups,” she said, though so far it has attracted mostly seniors.

Next year, the club will meet every other month, she said, noting that she has sent out a survey to “everyone who ever came” asking them to review and rate 30 suggested titles.

“I did a blurb on each one,” she said.

Levin will compile the results and send out a proposed book list to interested members.

“We’re working hard to get more organized by date, books, and facilitators,” she said.

She noted that attendee Beth Chananie (guide and gallery editor of this paper) did a review on “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society,” while member Belle Rosenbloom will review “Shanghai Girls” (Lisa See) in August.

“I ask people if they want to do a particular book,” she said, adding that “we would like to have an author (attend) if we could, though it probably won’t be this year.”

While the group started off by reading only Jewish books, it has now begun to add others to the mix.

“We’ll venture off occasionally into other books to relate to different points of view,” she said.

According to Levin, “People respond to the presentation more than the book. The fact that they keep coming back (shows that) they’re willing to accept one that may not have been their favorite. Members are very enthusiastic, they love the discussion, there’s a lot of interest and participation, and people seem to feel we’re serving a good purpose.”


The Sefer Society book group at Cong. Shomrei Torah in Wayne is heading into its fifth year, says group coordinator Janet Simon.

“Attendance fluctuates from month to month,” she said, noting that the club, which meets every six weeks, is attended mostly by women in their 50s and 60s.

Last month’s selection, however – “The Mascot: Unraveling the Mystery of My Jewish Father’s Nazi Boyhood” (Mark Kurzem) – “got a whole group from the Y who wanted to listen to see what it was all about.” Simon said the book drew a “great turnout. It’s a true story, and in some ways unbelievable. It led to a lot of discussion.”

The group coordinator said she particularly enjoys the June meeting, when members select books for the year.

“It’s one of my favorite meetings, talking about books and planning. Everyone brings in ideas.”

While the format up to now has been “easygoing,” next year different members will be asked to lead the discussion. In addition, while previous books have had either a Jewish author or a Jewish theme, she has suggested that the group “branch out and learn about different things.”

Among the books read this year was Norman Mailer’s “The Castle in the Forest.” “Everyone said they would never have read it on their own, but they were glad they did,” she said. “It was well written and interesting, (though) strange.”

Books the Wayne club will tackle this year include “A Pigeon and a Boy,” “The Glass Room” (Simon Mawer), “Start-up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle” (Dan Senor and Saul Singer), “The German Bride: A Novel” (Joanna Hershon), “The Postmistress” (Sarah Blake), “Blooms of Darkness: A Novel” (Aharon Appelfeld), and “The Invisible Bridge.”

“This is a great thing when you love to read,” said Simon. “It keeps you focused.”

Members of the Gesher Shalom-Fort Lee Jewish Center book club.
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